In this column last week I wrote about the possibility of the UN World Tourism Organization moving its headquarters from Madrid to Riyadh. Derided by those who question the usefulness of this entity, the feeling is nevertheless that it is better for the UNWTO to be in Spain - because of the kudos - than for it to not be.
Institutions of this kind invite criticism because they can appear to be inherently self-serving. Supranational but without any particular authority, it’s as though they exist for their own sakes and for those who inhabit the offices and various committees. This may be an unfair assessment in that good and vital works are undertaken, but a body such as the UNWTO can seem to be a long way removed from the realities of everyday tourism as experienced in, say, Mallorca. During the pandemic, the UNWTO has been playing its role, but this has not been a presence as obvious as, for instance, the private sector World Travel & Tourism Council.
If it does indeed turn out that the UNWTO vacates its Madrid home and relocates to Saudi Arabia, help may be at hand for Spain in terms of retaining the prestige of hosting an international tourism entity. This help could come from Brussels, because the European Commission, thanks to prodding from the European Parliament in March, is now in the process of establishing the European Tourism Agency.
There are European agencies for all manner of things. The European Medicines Agency is one with which we will be most familiar because of the pandemic. The EMA used to be based in London. Because of Brexit, a new home was needed. It would be simpler to name the member states which didn’t bid to be the new location than those which did. Barcelona was Spain’s candidate.
The city got nowhere near the final shortlist. Amsterdam won, and Amsterdam now has 900 EMA personnel. The benefits of hosting an international public organisation stretch beyond the prestige - there are the economic ones.
Pedro Sánchez has made clear in the past few days that he wants the European Tourism Agency to come to Spain. And where in Spain exactly? Not Barcelona, and not - which will probably be putting some noses out of joint locally - Mallorca.
The preferred option is the Canaries. MEPs from the Canaries say that the islands meet the conditions for hosting this body. The Canaries have “recognised tourism leadership in Europe”, an observation that will surely not play well with Iago Negueruela, Francina Armengol or Catalina Cladera at the Council of Mallorca.
Another condition is the Canaries status as an “ultra-peripheral region” of the European Union. In terms of economic development, this has argument has some merit, albeit that another argument - “all the advantages of connectivity” - is less convincing.
The islands also have the services and facilities “to receive the huge army of personnel involved in the establishment of the agency”. Herein really lies the rub. That army, the numbers of which are a long way off being identified yet, would mean economic benefit. The Canaries would get a new source of income as well as the international recognition that comes from being the home of a European agency.
As Sánchez and Canaries politicians scramble to lay the diplomatic groundwork for securing the agency, rather lost in all the messaging that has occurred over the past few days is the function of the agency. What would be its purpose?
The European Parliament has been keen to ensure that Europe remains a leading international tourism destination. This was one reason why the European Commission was asked to set it up. The pandemic was another. “The EU must look beyond the pandemic and replace the 2010 European tourism strategy in order to maintain Europe as a leading destination,“ the Commission has said.
The pandemic has shifted demand towards “safe and clean” and sustainable tourism, an objective that could have been lifted from the UNWTO’s mission. There needs to be a European strategy for sustainable tourism, this having originally been stated at a time when the European Parliament was pressing for integrated solutions to travel in the pandemic environment, the Digital Covid Certificate for instance.
So the pandemic has played its part in motivating the establishment of this agency. Otherwise, it is unknown as to what it would be for, save for coming up with a sustainable tourism strategy, which is something that all governments appear to be in the process of doing themselves, not least the Balearic government.
You might be surprised to learn that there was a European tourism strategy in 2010. What effect has this had? Can there be such a thing as an overall strategy? Tourism in the Balearics is very different to, for example, tourism in Estonia. What mandate can the EU have for the tourism of individual member states or individual regions like the Balearics or the Canaries? None, as far as I can see, especially when they are already pursuing their own strategies of a sustainable nature.
Would the European Tourism Agency merely be a further layer to add to those which already exist? For the Balearics, there is the regional government, there are the island councils, there is the Spanish government and its various components, e.g. the Turespaña national tourism agency. And yes, there is also Brussels with funds for this or that which haven’t until now required a specific body for tourism.
We’ll no doubt find out more about the agency. In the meantime, and without fully knowing what it would do, Spain is pressing the case for the Canaries. Armengol and Negueruela are maintaining a diplomatic silence.